Teaching Synesthesia in Dance

[Synesthesia] : Ancient Greek meaning "together" and "sensation." This neurological condition connects one sensory stimulation to a second sensory stimulation.

For example, you may hear a little kid say, "I smell something, and it smells like the color blue." Later, as that child attends school, a teacher will say, "Now 'smell' doesn't describe 'blue.' Blue is visual, and smell is... smell!" We teach children to categorize, differentiate, separate. But why?

While synesthesia is largely believed to be a genetic trait, studies have been done to test if synesthesia (or the integration of senses to other ideas) can be taught.

Olympia Colizoli found that to be the case. "The findings suggest that natural synesthesia may develop as a result of childhood experiences as well as genetics," the study reports.

How can dancers and dance educators teach synesthesia in their studios?

First, a little history on a dancer who used synesthesia in her choreography:

Mary Wigman (born Marie Wiegmann) started studying dance when she was 27 years old. She grew up singing, playing the piano and she had a teaching certificate in rhythmic gymnastics. When she started to study dance in 1913 under Rudolf Laban, he discouraged her because of her age. She was, in his opinion, a "late starter."

But Mary Wigman followed her senses. She was inspired by pure movement and felt it should come from the inside, and whatever connections the dancers' minds and bodies felt. She relied on feelings associated with smell, taste, sound and color all intertwined. She called this form of dance "absolute dance."

Wigman described this process in a book she wrote later in her life, The Language of Dance. She was recalling a time when she heard the sound of a glass harmonica: "All of a sudden I heard the long-forgotten tone again, softly, like a breath, like spun glass, unearthly, seraphic, ethereal, as if taking my hand in weightless strides... Above the spread and sound of light-footed wings, there it had to unfold, to soar in glassy transparency, quickened by a breath which fused shape and song into oneness."

So how can dance educators encourage their students to use their senses and connect that with movement?

1. Colors & Shapes

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Have the students get into groups and give them a color or shape. When they think of that color or shape, what movement does that make them want to do? What do you think of when they think of BLUE? What does that make their body want to do? Have them show their "Blue Dance" or "Circle Dance" to the class!

2. Smells

Bring smells into the studio! Various different ones, and ask the students to close their eyes and just... smell. Then ask them to write down what they thought of when they smelled the smell. Connect those thoughts to certain stories or emotions, then tell them to start moving. Have them create a dance that represents the smell and the stories connected to the smell. Have them create moves and have them explain where the movement came from, and why it is connected to the smell. How fascinating to know there is some uninvented "Cinnamon" move out there, waiting to be danced!

3. Visual

Ask each student to bring in a photograph or painting. Then have the students pass their photograph to another student. Give them a few minutes to visually review the photograph or painting, and then have them start moving. Ask them what they are portraying: The lines? The colors? The feeling? Ask them to identify what inspired the movement, and why the movement now exists after seeing the photograph.

4. Musical

Play different types of music for the students, or have the students investigate an instrument (the shape, the texture, the sounds). Then have them move like their assigned instrument. To further add to this, have them connect their instrument to a color, shape or smell. Have them move again.

Goals of Teaching Synesthesia in Dance:

~ We want the students to think beyond what they are given. A color isn't just a color, and a shape or sound or photograph isn't just... what it is. It CAN be more. The possibility exists for something (and anyone) to be more than what it currently exists as. Challenge them to think beyond what is handed to them, and recreate it into something else.

~ We want the students to trust their instincts. Trust what they feel their mind, heart and body is directing them to do. If they smell something that reminds them of the ocean and they start moving like the waves, perfect! If they see a photograph that reminds them of an animal and they start moving their body like the animal, perfect! We want them to connect concepts, ideas, subjects and translate it into movement.

~ We want the students to see "everyday life" as dance and potential movement. Creativity and inspiration is out there waiting to be discovered. Help them realize that dots can be connected OR dots can be created.

~ We want the students to be able to process the connection between stimulations so that they can further understand their movement and where it originates from. Does moving their core remind them of something heavy? Or the light movements of the arm represent the color yellow? Does lifting the arm or shooting out a leg mean red, or smell like bleach? Have them use language to describe their movement, after they have processed their integrations of ideas.

Movement possibilities and inspiration are limitless. Teach the students to be inspired and to move without restraint.

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